What Makes America Great–A Sermon

What Makes America Great–A Sermon

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Let me answer the question implied in the title of this sermon right off.  What makes America great is its ability to open its doors, receive, and become home to people of every kind and status.[2]  Sometimes this is messy.  Sometimes it is vacillating.  But the arc of our development bends relentlessly towards getting a very diverse group of folks to the table.

Let me put it differently.  What animates the United States is exactly the opposite of the ways tribes operate.  We’re not tribal.  What Tribalism emphasizes is a strong “us versus them” mentality.  The tribe sees itself as exceptional and superior to other groups.  Leadership in the tribe is an entitlement.  The religion of the tribe is absolute.  And loyalty to the tribe trumps all other allegiance.  Tribes are an unavoidable way that peoples get along.  This is why traditional societies were thoroughly tribal.  We still see tribal patterns in America’s inner cities—the Crips and the Bloods gangs or in crime families.  In summer camps kids start the week as strangers.  Then they form into little social circles and will begin to find reasons to believe that their little team is better than the ones in the other bunkhouse.

What I’m working to plant here is a celebration of the United States’ persistent, enduring, and developed movement away from tribalism.  That, I am certain, makes this nation great.

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We’re accustomed to hearing that the US is a nation of immigrants.  We’re a nation of nations.  We’ve been working on that since 1600.  About a million Europeans came to North America leading up to the establishment of the US Constitution.  More than half of them were in bondage–African slaves or indentured servants.  During the 1800’s newcomers came from the nations of Northern Europe.  In the 20th century, people complete with their traditions and language came to America from places like Italy and Poland.  You get to John Kennedy’s administration and there is yet another shift underway and Spanish speaking Catholics and Asians began finding their way here.  And with all of them, they pretty much scattered around the states, they set up their lives, dispelled any suspicion that greeted them, made contributions, and became Americans.

Of course, the iron laws of tribalism didn’t just disappear in America.  We have struggled to become more and more open.  Italians, Scots, Jews have all gone through their time of being misunderstood and the objects of derision.  Making America more welcoming to people from the African diaspora—some of our earliest immigrants has been a significant struggle.  The movement from slavery, to self-reliance, to voting rights, to full civil rights and social acceptance for African descent people has been a huge and none-too-glorious process.  But the process is there and progress is still being made.

In America it isn’t geographical place, family background, social class, religion, physical features, or even maleness or femaleness that binds us together.  It is being an American.

Let me tell you about my family.  The DeCelles—my dad’s side—bear a French last name, but with no remembrance of a French or any other background.  When and from whence the DeCelles came to America is lost.  How Grandpa DeCelle came to be born in Cortland, New York, I’ve never been told.

My maternal grandmother, Victoria, was a Titanic-era immigrant from Britain as a young, single woman.  She lived with her brother, a farmer, in Manitoba, Canada.  A couple years of Canadian winters brought common sense to Victoria.  Her next move was to Burbank, California.  There under LA’s palm trees she became a citizen, married, had kids, and made a life.  She retained her British accent.  As kids we’d sit and watch TV with “Gram” as we called her.  We laughed when she rooted for the Red Coats when we watched a historical show about the American Revolution on the Wonderful World of Disney.  Victoria returned to England once in my lifetime for a couple of weeks.  My grandmother’s is an American story.

My son-in-law hails from Nigeria.  He is sweet-dispositioned, an ardent Baptist, and has stronger family and parenting values than any of the DeCelles.  I’m proud that our son-in-law has been welcomed in America, by this congregation, and by the University of Minnesota medical school where his residency in pediatrics takes place.  He’s the husband and father of two United States citizens.  My son-in-law’s is the beginning of an American story.

I sometimes wonder, as my son-in-law’s father-figure in America, if I need to caution my him about encounters with the police.  I’m told that every African American family needs to have a serious talk with their sons about how to avoid a life-changing clash with the police.  What keeps me awake at night is that thought of our physician son-in-law rushing to the hospital some night to save a distressed child, and be pulled over and slammed up against the hood of his car?  Am I being neglectful as a parent in not having that conversation?

This Christmas our daughter, grand-daughter, and son-in-law will spend several weeks in Nigeria.  Nigeria is home to Isis-affiliate Boko Harem.  Nigeria is a hotbed of the encounter between Islam and Christianity.  When our family travels in Africa we pray for their safety.  I would expect that our son-in-law’s mother and dad in Lagos to do everything possible to guard our shared family from all violence and religious radicalism that grips the northern part of their country.  Let it be that I never have to place a phone call to Lagos, and apologize for an exception to what I’m celebrating in this sermon. Let it be that I’ll never have to apologize for America.

But before I become melodramatic, let me restate what I think makes America great.  Relentlessly, we move away from all forms of intolerance and suspicion between groups.  It’s the movement.  Sometimes it has appeared that the movement is stopping or backing up, that peoples are being singled out for criticism and abuse.  Tolerance, pluralism, inclusiveness are hard.  Americans have been griping about immigrants since the Constitutional era.  In the time of the founders, our forebears were suspicious of the non-Protestant French and Irish.  Read the complex history of the Irish in America.  There was a day when the Catholicism of Irish immigrants was openly mocked.  Irish workers ended up with the worst jobs.  But here is the whole point.  That has eased.  Those lines of suspicion are fading fast.  In America they’re always fading.

There has always been the tendency for one group of Americans to decide that they are the natives and that they need to protect the country from some other group.  Someone has always wanted to take America back.  An early example came in 1798 when no less than John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Act which deemed the French as dangerous to the republic.  From time to time anti-immigration sentiment bubbled up and then faded away.  It has faded away because it is contrary to our spirit.

Where tribalism exists in America, it does so only for now.  The day comes when it will end.  It always has.  Italians and poles blend in comfortably.  Jews flourish in all places in America.  Prejudice against homosexuals is being banished at breathtaking speed.  America flourishes not because one group is superior and everybody else is being tolerated—or not tolerated.  What makes America great is the prospect that everybody may flourish.

Now, this is a sermon.  I don’t want to let this time simply be a reflection about our nation or personal family stories.  What I really want to say is that America’s movement toward more and more embrace of all peoples and backgrounds and ideals tracks strikingly with the same emphasis in our faith.  When God spoke to Abraham, way back in Genesis, he enlisted him and all of his offspring in his own grand mission to the world, namely that all the families of the world be blessed.  What do they say about the church, “It’s the world’s only institution that was called to be in service to those who aren’t members.”   We fast-forward to the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians and we see a development of the vocation of Abraham.  The great end of Christ’s ministry is that “every knee on earth and under the earth, shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”

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Humanity will gather as if to a great family reunion, where the clan will come from east and west and north and south to eat in the Kingdom of God.  And together, we will worship Jesus Christ.  For me, there will be a little Muslim child at my right and a Canadian biker at my left.  And it will be like the family reunion where we all get together and enjoy one another.  Differences will be gone.  We’ll laugh about how we used to fight.  And Jesus will be at the head of the table and we’ll all thank God for him.

That’s where our faith moves.  We started as one family.  Right!  We’re all descendant from Noah and his three sons, according to the Bible.  The whole biblical drama is about how God wants to work through his people to restore goodness and truth and beauty to the world.  Jesus came and the mission of God really exploded radiating out from Jerusalem like ripples on a pond to the ends of the earth.  The Acts of the Apostles uses that language: “To the ends of the earth.”

Our nation and our gritty work of getting everyone a place at the table, moves in the same direction that does the biblical drama.  Is America the Kingdom of God?  No.  Only God builds the Kingdom.  But I do believe that we’re making a contribution to the kingdom when we succeed at say racial reconciliation or when a person quite different from you and me is able to find a niche in this congregation.  That’s good work.  And it isn’t going to be something we’ll have to walk back in ten years when God finally convinces us that we are after all Abraham’s children and our job is to be a blessing to all the families of this earth.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”  Thomas Jefferson, principle author of the Declaration of Independence, was a philosopher to the core and when he talks about self-evident truths, he’s talking about something too fundamental to be proven; something structured into the way things are.  So, what are such truths?  “That all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  There it is.  That is what makes America great.  Okay, I know that Jefferson held slaves and if men have unalienable rights what about the women?  The disparity between Jefferson’s writing and his practice has been debated and criticized throughout our history.  Here’s my plea.  Let’s not miss Jefferson’s genius here.  That all people are created equal was an explosion of light in the midst of the 17th century.  Old Abe Lincoln realized the great vista being laid out by Jefferson and proposed re-adopting the Declaration with a new vision of all persons being created equal.

That’s the debate that is so glorious in this land, that’s the movement, that’s the direction God would take us.  And that is what makes America great.

Douglas DeCelle preached this sermon on July 3, 2016 at the First Presbyterian Church in LaGrange, GA.

[2] The central idea of this sermon derives from Michael Walzer’s: What it Means to Be an American

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